OK, Joss Whedon fans, your months of waiting finally end tonight with the arrival of Dollhouse, the latest, though certainly not greatest, of his television creations. In fact, had you not known he was actively involved in this show, you'd be forgiven for not even recognizing his involvement by hour's end. Was it a bad way to spend an hour? Certainly not. Did it live up to his previous body of work? Certainly not.
Not a fair criticism? Possibly. Looking back at Whedon's previous three shows, only Firefly had a strong pilot episode. And while Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel both grew into two of my five favorite television series of all time, both had initially bumpy roads on the way to boob tube immortality. Dollhouse had a lot of heavy lifting to do tonight, bogging down the action in the first half before giving us a glimpse of what might come as the season progresses.
At the heart of the show is Echo, one of the many "actives" in the service of a shadowy organization that exists outside of government, law enforcement, and most people's general sense of morality. "Actives" can be either male or female, though many share Echo's gender. Are actives recruited? Yes, though if Echo's an indicative example, it's against their will: a woman by the name of Adelle Dewitt recruits Echo after an unnamed incident involving her sister while "trying to make a difference."
Of course, the Echo inside the titular Dollhouse doesn't remember this encounter. Heck, she can barely remember last weekend. Why? Because inside the Dollhouse, after what looks like an initial (and painful) physical procedure, the dolls are bred to be "imprinted" with both mental and physical attributes tailored for the specific needs of the Dollhouse's wealthy clientele. After three days of riding motorcycles and riding, well, a motorcyclist, Echo's initial assignment ends as her handler tells her it's time for her treatment.
Mention of "treatment" is one of several verbal triggers that register Manchurian Candidate-style like with the dolls, suggesting the lack of free will these actives truly have. The childlike way in which Echo and others move around in between assignments suggests just how hollowed out they are, a state suggested as well by Echo's handler. An ex-cop, Boyd Langdon acts as the moral compass inside the Dollhouse, fighting the bureaucratic nature of Dewitt and her associate, Laurence Dominic.
These dueling positions crystallized in an exchange that highlighted the difference between "mission" and "engagement." Boyd uses the former word, emphasizing the human factor in this week's kidnapping plot. Dewitt uses the latter, which is ironic: she couldn't be less engaged in the people involved in the Dollhouse's casework. Even the word "active" functions to dehumanize the people under her control. They seek to protect the company; Boys seeks to protect Echo.
Just how do Echo and others receive their imprints? Through a cocktail of other personalities, stirred up inside a hard drive and downloaded into the dolls. Sadly, the recipes involved in such downloads take the good, take the bad, take them both and then you have the memory of a former victim of this week's mastermind. The very essence that allows Echo's negotiator to empathize with the victim comes back to (quite literally) haunt "Eleanor Penn," her pu pu platter personality of the week. This aspect initially cripples Echo/Eleanor, though eventually allows the kidnapper's original victim (who has since committed suicide) some sort of peace.
But then again, it only allowed the imprinted memory such closure, and here's where things get truly confusing and potentially crippling for the show as a whole. On one level, we're watching Echo unaware of the slave-like state in which she exists. On a level above that, we're watching Echo/Eleanor suffer mental and physical anguish at the hands not only of the kidnapper but also the morons in the Dollhouse who really should have done some better background checking before downloading said personality into her brain and body. So when Echo/Eleanor archive a type of closure, it's a false one at best, compounded by the fact that hours later she returns for "treatment" that wipes the whole thing from her memory banks.
So, the obvious question: if a former abused girl's memory finds closure in the body of a hollowed-out active, does it make an Echo? The show clearly is setting up a long-term arc in which the nature of the Dollhouse stays with Echo, even after treatment. And it looks like she's not the first to suffer the slings and arrows of persistent memory: both Dr. Claire Saunders and a baddie named Alpha (who's as interested in Echo as he is uninterested in clothes) might be scarred as well by their time as dolls. (In Claire's case, literally so.)
Also interested in Echo? An FBI agent named Paul Ballard. We know he's tough, because, well, he kickboxes! Looks like he's been investigating the Dollhouse for over a year, continually running into roadblocks thanks to the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous who use said the company for their own, varied, and more than likely illegal purposes. Right now he's shaking down the Russian mob, using their kidnapping rings to finally pin something solid on the Dollhouse, but it looks like Alpha will soon be mailing him a big honkin' hint.
While a viewer can rightfully ask if we can root for a character reboot on a weekly basis, I'm more curious if Joss Whedon can actually make his presence felt in the series. Know the old phrase, "A camel is a horse designed by committee?" This pilot felt like "an episode designed by Fox executives." I don't need characters to speak in sentences with inverted structure and words that unnecessarily end in the letter "y," but for better or worse, Whedon fans expect something less generic from something with his name on it.
While the idea for the show is original, the execution felt less so. Part of this can be attributed to the heavy lifting inherent in a pilot episode, but an equal part of this can also be attributed to a show that's yet to find its voice. And since its conceit dictates that the mouthpiece for it changes on a weekly basis, that's a huge obstacle for it to overcome. Am I unfairly expecting more from Joss? I have three words for you: Buffy. Angel. Firefly. So, no. The guy can bring it. I'm just worried Fox won't let him bring it to Dollhouse.
C'mon, Fox: you don't hire Joss Whedon and Eliza Dushku to just do other television show. You hire them to unleash a singular voice and vision that is unmatched on the television landscape. Unfortunately, for the majority of tonight's pilot episode, their talent was hollowed out, much like the dolls themselves. I have hope for the future, but only because I have such fond memories from the past. It's the present I'm less sure about.
What did you think of the premiere? Did it meet your expectations, or were they simply too high for any episode to meet? Did you feel the show belonged in the Whedonverse or a Fox focus group? Leave your thoughts below!
Ryan receives his "treatment" over at Boob Tube Dude.